Born in Montreal in 1922, Mavis Gallant grew up in both Québec and the northeastern United States. After she finished high school in New York City, she returned to Montréal where she worked at the National Film Board, until she became a reporter for the Montreal Standard at the age of twenty-one, where she worked for only six years before she relocated to Europe.
Montréal is a prominent element of her fiction and most deliberately in “1933”. Although most of her stories were first published in “The New Yorker”, this fiction first appeared in Mademoiselle. Immediately readers are plunged into the city.
We can follow her landmarks even today as the surviving members of the Carette family leave Rue Saint-Denis to live on the second-floor of a stone house in Rue Cherrier near the Institut des sourds et muets (Institute of the Deaf and Mute).
Their new lodgings aren’t far away. If Mme Carette walks just a little further, she can still do business with the same butcher and grocer. The children will continue to visit Parc Lafontaine, just farther along the street.
The Carette girls, Berthe and Marie, don’t need to know any English in this neighbourhood, other than “I don’t understand”, “I don’t know”, and “No, thank you”. (Which is fortunate, because those are also the only English phrases that twenty-seven-year-old Mme Carette knows.) But the landlord’s dog, Arno, who lives downstairs, understands both languages.
Even in their mother tongue, word choice matters. Berthe and Marie are told that they are never to say that their mother stayed overnight in the home of a stranger to finish sewing the woman’s wedding dress; they are to say, instead, that their mother was clever with her hands.
In this subtle detail, readers understand more about the change in the Carette family situation than any details about the neighbourhood or language skills or tradespeople. Monsieur Carette died about a year ago, and the insurance money from the estate has not yet been paid out.
On moving day, soft snow falls, “like graying lace”. Things are not just changing–the lace would be some other colour, in some other state–but deteriorating. Everything is still handled properly (sheets of La Presse put down on the floors, so that the movers do not track in the snow) but the standards are other than they would have been, had the family remained intact, with a patriarch’s provisions.
And by the end of the story, readers understand that “1933” is not simply about human suffering—it’s about the suffering of women and girls, the unique ways in which they experience loss and uncertainty.
These truths could have been explored in a variety of places. But they feel perfectly at home in Montreal.
Where M. Grosjean’s handkerchief is green-and-white checked.
Where the streetcar clangs at dawn.
Where Marie draws her tiny fingers through a puddle of her spit on the window glass.
Where Arno the dog likes to run away with the ball rather than return it (no matter the language of instruction).
These were some of the first Mavis Gallant stories that I read. It’s wonderful to return to them, to get reacquainted with the Carette family (subject of four stories herein).
Across the Bridge’s Stories: 1933 / The Chosen Husband / From Cloud to Cloud / Florida / Dédé / Kingdom Come / Across the Bridge / Forain / A State of Affairs / Mlle. Dias de Corta / The Fenton Child
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the first story in Across the Bridge. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “The Chosen Husband”.